Review By Lisa Lanzi
August Strindberg (1849-1912) was a notorious misanthrope and unrepentant misogynist, this quote attributed to him: ''Woman, being small and foolish and therefore evil . . . should be suppressed, like barbarians and thieves. She is useful only as ovary and womb.'' (from STRINDBERG By Michael Meyer). Miss Julie (1888), one of his most famous works, follows the compressed events of just one night and was initially censored by Swedish authorities for its shocking content. Representing Julie as the last of a fading aristocratic breed, Strindberg pits the characters against each other and the invisible authority figure of the Count across boundary lines of class, gender, privilege, and sexuality. Miss Julie was written during a prolonged period of mental and emotional instability, his writing taking on themes that raged against contemporary social conventions.
Alongside his cast’s contributions, director James Watson (Home Thoughts, Triumph of Man) has kept elements of Strindberg’s naturalistic, then expressionistic, theatre leanings for this contemporary adaptation. They heighten this further by gifting the audience a kind of voyeur status. The setting is promenade style with the audience facing each other from either side of a pristine white carpet and peering into an elegant but spare living room where every human nuance is writ large. Julie (Kate Owen), the entitled daughter of a ridiculously wealthy man, is relaxing odalisque-like on a lounge as the audience steps onto the stage space of the Goodwood Theatre. The atmosphere soon tosses us into the present day with Julie’s avid attention to her mobile phone and animatedly chatting to Christine (Emelia Williams), the family cleaner.
As the play begins in earnest, we are transported to a club, observe the two women dance, pose, take photographs, and finally return to Julie’s home; all of this portrayed with astute sound and lighting changes. Julie is inebriated but high on life, endorphins and perhaps other substances. Christine is her confidante, her friend, and saviour who populates the subordinate role allowing Julie to shine in outfits, knowledge, status, and more. Eventually Jean (Christian Bartlett) arrives in a flurry of ‘busyness’, a junior assistant at the beck of Julie’s father. Christine is in a relationship with Jean but the ever self-serving Julie proceeds to seduce him while Christine sleeps. Mind games, drinking games, grand imaginings of other possible lives ensue and between them, it is unclear who is more deluded. Both Julie and Jean confess secrets and fluctuate between attraction, anger, honest laughter and revelations, hurtful name-calling, and raw lust.
Each actor is more than competent and fully inhabits their role with utter focus in the intimate surrounds. Owen is a captivating Julie with the right amount of fragility revealed as needed. The role offers a mostly well-rounded glimpse of Julie’s self-destructive, indulgent world. Bartlett has an affecting stage presence and excellent vocal resonance, giving Jean a fascinating, almost dangerous sense of being in the world. As a character though, Jean’s brief trajectory from upright, mostly loyal employee with grand dreams to an impulsive lover ready to abandon reality and risk everything is perhaps difficult to accept; in the domain of this play everything is heightened, however I am still to decide whether I totally believe the adventure. Both Jean and Julie are flawed and extremely conflicted about life choices and their inherent situations. This contemporising of Strindberg, with local references, certainly illuminates a class divide which exists in Australia but is often refuted.
Williams graces Christine with a steadfastness and decency that contrasts poignantly with the wildness of Jean and Julie. The characters exist on a roundabout of shifting morality and emotion, fluctuating status, and skirting the edges of psychological stability whereas Christine is the voice of kindness and reason, though still battling her own unfulfilled wants. All three possess hidden desires and unrealised fragility that sit beside their declared needs and we are given an interesting study of a generation where those conditions are often the source of destructive behaviours and epic frustrations.
The three actors make for an arresting ensemble with excellent rapport and Watson has led them in crafting a fine, professional production. Perfectly imagined lighting states, creative staging and design, and the wonderful sound score from company creatives Ruby Jenkins and Reggie Parker enhance the whole. I very much appreciated Watson’s subtle use of stillness and vocal pauses, the facings and physicality employed in each scene, and the masterful spacing and arrangement of figures within a demanding stage alignment.
It is beyond exciting to have the Famous Last Words team embarking on a full season of works as the resident company at Goodwood Theatre and Studios and I look forward to seeing their next steps.